VISIONEER: JOHN LOGIE BAIRD AND MECHANICAL TELEVISION
by Trevor Blake
PART TWO: JOHN LOGIE BAIRD
Scotsman John Logie Baird had long been an entrepreneur
and inventor. When he was twelve he built his own
telephone. He had invested in chutney in the West Indies,
artificial diamonds in Glasgow and soap in London. In
1918 he held the patent for the Baird Undersock, a sock
worn beneath regular socks. In 1920, at the age of 31, he
began his life's work == the undercredited discovery and
development of television.
Beginning with a personal ad in the London Times
("SEEING BY WIRELESS: Inventor of apparatus wishes to
hear from someone who will assist [not financially] in
making working model"), Baird set out to build a working
television system using borrowed money and the material he
had at hand, which included darning needles, hat boxes, a
Rich Mix biscuit tin, sealing wax and a bicycle lantern.
His Nipkow disk was cut from an old tea chest.
In February 1923 he entered the shop of Hasting radio
dealer Victor Mill and asked for assistance, saying "I've
fitted up an apparatus for transmitting pictures and I
can't get it to go." Mills accompanied Baird back to his
laboratory/apartment and waved his hand in front of the
neon: when Baird shouted "it's here, it's here!", the
first real-time electronic moving picture in world history
occurred. Not long after Baird demonstrated his system to
the local press, but was evicted from his apartment.
Baird relocated to London and set up a second and
lab in Soho. Using ventriloquist dummies (better able to
withstand the intense heat and light of his equipment), he
succeeded in transmitting a televised image one yard
across his room. In March 1925 he gave the first public
demonstration of television, sponsored by Selfridge's
A demonstration of television in January 1926 in
Baird's small, drafty attic apartment failed to impress
the Royal Institute, particularly when the long white
beard of one of the men became entangled in the mechanism.
In Autumn of the next year he transmitted eight miles, and
formed a company: Television Ltd.
The first recorded television images were made on 10"
wax disks called Phonovisors, no later than September 1927
in Baird's labs: he had been awarded a patent for this
technology the year before. Phonovisor disks captured
12.5 frames of 30-line resolution television per second.
Baird also patented Noctovision, the use of infrared light
in television, and demonstrated color television (using a
rotating filter system) in 1927.
By 1928, Baird Televisors sold for between 20 and 150
pounds (kits sold for 16 guineas). Baird's assistant
Benjamin Clapp travelled to New York City to receive the
first transoceanic television signal. The box of
equipment he used was labeled 'experimental radio
equipment' to prevent customs from seizing it as a
dangerous or profitable new technology.
It took two months before a break in the weather
allowed Clapp to see the image of Stukey Bill (((a.k.a.
"Stooky Bill"))), the ventriloquist dummy head used in the
Baird studio, but once the press was called in the event
received one inch headlines across the nation. On the way
home aboard the *Berengeria,* Clapp allowed the ship's
wireless operator to see his fiance in England via
television while 1,000 miles out at sea.
Eighteen licensed transmitters were in operation in
the United States by the late 1920s, transmitting faces
and silhouettes. General Electric's House of Magic
recorded synchronized sound and pictures in New York. In
1928 Bell Telephone transmitted a television image from
New York to Washington D. C. The threat of losing
television to the USA gave Baird leverage in convincing
the BBC to begin television transmission.
In 1928 Baird convinced a London surgeon to lend him
an eyeball removed from a young man's head. In his own
"As soon as I was given the eye, I hurried in a
taxicab to the laboratory. Within a few minutes I had the
eye in the machine. Then I turned on the current and the
waves carrying television were broadcast from the aerial.
The essential image for television passed through the eye
within half and hour after the operation. On the
following day the sensitiveness of the eye's visual nerve
was gone. The optic was dead. I had been dissatisfied
with the old-fashioned selenium cell and lens. I felt
that television demanded something more refined. The most
sensitive optical substance known is the nerve of the
human eye... I had to wait a long time to get the eye
because unimpaired ones are not often removed by
surgeons... Nothing was gained from the experiment. It
was gruesome and a waste of time."
The BBC began mechanical television transmission in
1929. In July 1930, the BBC transmitted Pirandello's play
"The Man with a Flower in His Mouth" in 240 lines of
resolution. The heads and shoulders of the actors were
shown as they spoke their lines and sat on a stool: when
another actor was to be shown, a screen was held before
the camera as the actors exchanged seats.
The Derby was televised in June 1931: a camera waited
at the finish line until the moment when the horses and
jockeys passed by. The BBC was transmitting four days a
week by August 1932.
By this time, Baird's financial backers began to
insist he look into the electronic television of Philo
Farnsworth. When Farnsworth travelled to England while
raising money in his legal battles with RCA/EMI, he met
with Baird and demonstrated his system. Baird explained
the superiority of his system to Farnsworth, but after
watching several minutes of cathode ray tube television he
left the room without a word.
Baird's sponsors gave Farnsworth $50,000 to supply
Baird with electronic television equipment. A fire that
nearly destroyed the Alexander Palace studios soon after
closed down the BBC, and when they reopened they were
fully committed to the electronic television of EMI.
After 1,500 successful mechanical transmissions, the
BBC was ready to switch to the EMI system. Beginning
September 1935, they held a final six-month trial, during
which the two systems were transmitted on alternate weeks
from Alexander Palace, 12 miles north of London. Studio A
used the EMI system, while Studio B used the Baird film
Baird's system lost, and on 2 November 1936 the BBC
transmitted the first high-definition television signal
using the EMI system. Many executives and technicians
were invited to the studio on opening day, but when Baird
showed up he was left wandering the halls, shut out from
celebrating the technology he had developed.
The final mechanical television transmission in
England occurred in February 1937.
Baird continued to develop television technology.
In 1940, he introduced the Telechrome, an electronic color
television system in which two electron guns scanned 600 -
650 lines on a white mica sheet coated with orange
phosphor on one side and blue-green phosphor on the
other. War time restrictions prevented full scale
production of the Telechrome. At the time of his death in
1946, John Logie Baird was working on stereoscopic
127 House - An Independent Archive of Systematic Ideology
P.O. Box 2321 Portland OR 97208-2321 USA - (503) 635-1796
email@example.com - http://www.teleport.com/~house127